Aug 6, 2017

Inside the anti-vaccination cult

Aneeka Simonis and Sophie Smith
Herald Sun
August 4, 2017

WITHIN 24 hours of their baby boy’s death, Catherine and Greg Hughes were confronted with the ugliness that drives the misinformed anti-vax warriors.

The grieving parents were bombarded with vicious attacks claiming they were “baby-killers” and that their infant son Riley had died because they did not treat him with vitamins and essential oils.

But the inconvenient truth which the Australian Vaccination-sceptics Network and other anti-establishment radicals do not want to acknowledge is that Riley died of whooping cough, for which he was not vaccinated.

“We were told that we were baby-killers simply because we were raising awareness about pregnancy vaccination — a proven method of protecting infants from this disease which we weren’t told about at the time we were pregnant with Riley,” Ms Hughes told the Herald Sun.

“We were accused of being employees of pharmaceutical companies, we were told that our child didn’t ever exist, and we were even accused of killing Riley ourselves.”

More than two years on, his parents are still being trolled by anti-vaxxers who Ms Hughes claims will stop at nothing to silence those who oppose their dangerous quest to endanger lives.

“They don’t want to acknowledge the fact that these diseases can be fatal, and kill innocent children,” Ms Hughes said.

“They were also very concerned with the media attention our son’s death received, and I believe the co-ordinated attacks and harassment were a very deliberate attempt at silencing us.

The attacking and harassment of bereaved parent’s is part of the AVN’s modus operandi (but) we refuse to be silenced.”

Fellow victim and mother Alison Gaylard said she had withstood years of abuse which was sparked from a social media post in which she sought to reason with anti-vaxxers after her two daughters fell ill with whooping cough.

Sisters Alice and Florence Gaylard, then aged 6 and 2, were vaccinated but became infected due to low vaccination rates in the community, according to Ms Gaylard.

“They were sick for weeks. They were having 20-minute coughing spasms and vomiting,” she said.

“I wanted to show people who were possibly being swayed not to vaccinate their kids how sick my girls got, and how much worse it could be if they weren’t vaccinated.

“Within a few hour of posting to social media, there was a blog post written about me.

“I panicked. I tried to delete the post but it was already out there.

“I was then sent letters in the mail and emails suggesting I should attend Weight Watchers meetings and that I was not a good example for my kids.

“They made memes about me. I got anonymous phone calls from people telling me how misinformed I am. I still cannot believe the lengths they go to to spread lies.”

The campaign to break down Ms Gayland then took a disturbing turn.

They began targeting her children, she said.

Her daughter Alice was stalked in a supermarket and approached by a woman.

“She asked if Alice was my daughter and then laughed in her face,” Ms Gayland said. “They are twisted. They will go through any avenue they can find to shut people up.”

The AVN — described by medical experts as a “brainwashed” cult and condemned by federal bureaucrats — have been staging secret meetings across Melbourne and Australia in which a banned film promoting the anti-vax message has been screened to crowds including parents with young kids.

They have been accompanied with children’s literature including a book titled Melanie’s Marvellous Measles, in which kids are said to be “lucky” to contract the deadly illness and are encouraged to resist vaccinations and mix with those infected.

Anti-vax ringleaders have conned venues into the dangerous screenings, failing to disclose themselves and providing false information about the film.

Miami State High School in Queensland was among those duped into showing the film, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe.

The group had covertly booked the screening through an “independent local business owner”, and claimed the film would “promote their healthy lifestyle business of organic foods and coffee”.

Similar tactics have been used in Melbourne where two screenings were held this week.

Each have been attended by American anti-vax leaders who have flown in to spread their dangerous message.

On both occasions, parents cradling infant children were among the attendees.

Stop the AVN campaigner, Tracey McDermott, used a fake name to get into one of the screenings after previously being denied entry due to her views.

She said she was alarmed to see so many young children in the crowd.

“There were about six babies and a couple of toddlers. That was the most concerning part ... the fact that they were in an environment surrounded by non-vaccinated people,” she said.

Boroondara Council had unknowingly hired out the Hawthorn Arts Centre to the anti-vaxxer group “under a private name” on Thursday, while a CBD cinema hosted a screening of the film the night before.

Red-faced Boroondara Council took to social media to clarify its support for vaccinations after the showing.

“We are strongly opposed to the suggestion that children should not be vaccinated and commit considerate resources to both education and delivery of vaccinations,” it wrote on Facebook.

The US film is based on the premises that the triple Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine can cause “regressive autism” in healthy babies if administered between one to two years of age as recommended in America.

It also claims America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as investigators and pharmaceutical giants have covered-up statistical evidence of the purported causal link between the vaccine and autism, which was raised by a CDC whistleblower.

The Herald Sun attended one of the Melbourne screenings, in which pro-vaccine experts were spat on and parents colluded on ways to sidestep Victorian schools’ immunisation record requirements.

“Why are we such a big concern to them (pro-vaxxers)?” one woman asked.

Parents also discussed homoeopathic alternatives to vaccines, and how to handle the critical views of majority pro-vaccination peers.

Dr John Cunningham, who was awarded an Order of Australia for his work in vaccination promotion, likened the anti-vaxxing group to a cult which he said fed on people’s fears.

He sought to provide fact-based information about vaccines to Hawthorn film-goers on Thursday, but was instead yelled and spat at.

“They don’t listen to reason, science or facts,” he said. “They only listen to things that confirm their paranoid, conspiracy-driven mindsets.

“It’s like they are on a witch hunt ... attributing every disease to vaccinations.

“They are removing people from evidence-based care which means they are destroying lives. They are endangering health.

“I feel disdain for the cult leaders and I feel pity for the people who have been drawn into the cult.

“I advise anyone with friends or relatives who are anti-vaxxers to tread gently because they have been brainwashed.”

The Herald Sun has been informed about other scare tactics used by anti-vaxxers in their mission to drive down Australian vaccine rates.

They include leaving business cards which read “Investigate Before You Vaccinate” in nappy boxes in supermarkets, and stickers with the same message stuck on baby books.

Anti-vaxxers have also been known to remove or deface pro-vaccine posters in hospitals and on community boards across the country.

But their reach is strongest on social media, where they use guerilla tactics to skew scientific evidence and sway vulnerable people.

Ms McDermott said: “(Anti-vaxxers’) main ammunition is manipulating the emotions of parents which is quite easy to do because parents love their children and will do anything for them.

“They guilt parents of children with illnesses. They don’t blame genetics or rotten luck, (anti-vaxxers) plant an idea in their heads that they have done this to their child because they vaccinated them.

“They will claim this for any form of disability or illness from asthma to down syndrome and autism.

“The other way they operate is by controlling the message,” she said, referring to her being denied entry to an AVN meeting.

“Anyone who disagrees with them is banned and not allowed to engage so they can control the exposure to real facts and medical information.

“They plant the idea that medical professionals and the government are trying to make people ill and keep them compliant to make money out of them and control them.”

The Herald Sun approached the AVN over accusations the group attempts to guilt parents into not vaccinating their children through bullying tactics.

In a statement, the group denied such claims including those made by Ms Gaylard.

“This allegation has no basis in fact. The AVN has never made such a statement,” the statement said.

“The AVN supports informed consent for parents, not the cult-like bullying and financial coercion inflicted upon parents by the government and pharmaceutical industry.”

A public health warning has been issued against the AVN group, which has been investigated by interstate government bodies.

@Aneeka Simonis

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